Month: March 2021

Riding Day 2–Part 1

The second morning I wake with a severe ache. It is not muscle or bone. It is an ache for safety and security, for knowing where I am and how to proceed through the day. I am still 350 miles from home. I want nothing more than to be home, in the place I have spent years running away from. My throat tightens in an attempt to choke back the rumbling of fears and doubts that rise with the sun, and loses.                                                                              

 My call wakes my husband at 6:30 AM. He stays true to his promise and prepares for the five-hour trip to retrieve me. I hang up as sobs of defeat release within the thin nylon walls, my pillow my only friend to help hide my embarrassment. Gradually, my breathing slows and muscles soften and the hard edge of willpower that has fueled me across the past months dissolves. But a different strength starts to unfold. I realize I have trained for this journey for far longer than the few months leading up to it. I have endured thirty hours of labor giving birth to my son, have held the hands of loved ones as the warmth of life faded, have worked three jobs to gain the education that has led to a successful career, have stuck out the crashing waves of my husband’s struggle with drugs and alcohol after Viet Nam. Faith in my ability to endure and move forward on my own mounts. The tears I thought had washed away the fragile scaffolding of success instead uncovered the foundation of the spirit where my real support lived. I redial and cancel the rescue.

I head to the cafeteria for a quick breakfast, knowing I will need this nourishment to get through the morning even though I would rather avoid showing my red eyes and blotchy face. I meet the women I met yesterday at lunch and they ask if I am OK. I assure them I am and hurry on, knowing there is no way they believe me. The cafeteria is crowded with the usual jolly occupants–why do I not share this cheery attitude? What is wrong with me? The crowd is actually good for getting lost in. and I grab some oatmeal and fruit and gulp it down in a corner. Then I race back to my tent to prepare for the day. My tent mate meets me with a questioning look. I just tell her it has been a rough morning and leave as quickly as I can, hoping to put distance between desire and doubt. I ease onto wet roads under heavy skies and merge into the grayness. It feels strangely comforting and safe.

Riding day #1-part 2

Lunch is on our own in a small town. I realize how important this event must be to the businesses in the many small towns along the trail. Towns that grew and thrived, first during construction of the canal, and then when it was the primary mode of transporting goods, are now either struggling or don’t exist at all. Most of the eateries are packed when I arrive. I hear there is another place further down a side street. Along the way I find two women around my age also looking for a place to eat. We talk briefly and determine one of them lives only a few miles from me. The other is her friend from another state who joined her for this trip. Must be nice. We continue searching together and find a small place to get a sandwich. The two are very talkative but easily include me in their conversation. I surprise myself by joining the chatter without hesitation. After a nice break we ride together a short distance, then they pull ahead and we wave goodbye. I am content to be alone again. 

My tent mate catches up to me and we ride together for a bit before stopping to explore the town of Lockport-the home of the original ‘flight of five’ locks, constructed before steel and electric motors were available. The locks were constructed of wooden gates, each only capable of holding a 12 foot depth of water. Five consecutive locks were required to scale the 60 foot gain in elevation presented by the Niagara escarpment-the same mass of stone over which Niagara Falls flows between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A double lock–the only one on the present canal-now takes the place of the flight of five.

We join a free hour long cruise through the two locks and listen to the history of just this one location. The magnitude of the history that will be revealed as we travel along this man made wonder begins to dawn. Initially scorned as a waste of money and labeled ‘Clinton’s ditch’, the canal invented its way across NY State, creating new methods and machinery to meet new needs. The canal opened the east to the west and began the industrialization of the miles it passed through, ultimately turning NY City into the busiest port in America

Now more than halfway through the first day’s trip, confidence in my ability to keep up the pace and stay upright in my seat is building, slowly. My tent mate and I take a welcomed break at an afternoon rest stop. I lie down briefly on a grassy slope in the sun and feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck release. I grab a snack and water and notice all the smiling faces–bikers and rest stop volunteers alike. My fears quiet and I feel a small sense of well being.

We head back to the trail together and I make an awkward turn to avoid another biker – and down I go. The fear I’ve carried since I began training months ago becomes reality. I jump up as fast as I can as others race towards me to see if I am all right. I insist I am fine, my face hot with embarrassment – until I see the blood gushing down my arm. Someone finds a first aid kit and washes off the dirt and gravel, then applies antiseptic cream and a gauze bandage from my elbow to my wrist. I make light of it all and chuckle as I quip: “Well that’s over, I’ve been afraid of falling all day and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore!” And I sort of believe myself!

We continue on to Medina—famous for its sandstone, which forms the base of both the Brooklyn Bridge and Buckingham Palace. Who knew? Then tent city welcomes us into the athletic field at Clifford H. Wise School. The day’s miles are behind me with no need for the Sag Wagon, and I am not even the last person to arrive-imagine that. There is an indoor pool. I hesitate to use it. I can’t really swim and visions from my high school locker room days are not inviting-but the thought of cool water on my overheated body is, so in I go. After a shower, I visit the medic to have my arm looked at. He says I will need the bandage changed daily. Guilt wells up as I realize I should not have gone into the pool with an open wound.

Dinner is a step above school cafeteria fare-a green salad and several forms of pasta with something sweet for desert. I sit with the women I met at lunch and a few others and listen to the tales of the day-adding my own in response to questions about the gauze covering half my arm. I am off to bed early, tired, almost in one piece, and wondering if I can really do this again tomorrow.

Riding Day #1- part 1

I wake early after little sleep, attend the tire changing clinic, eat a quick breakfast amongst chattering fellow bikers, and lug my heavy bag across the field to the truck that will carry it to our next tent site. Why didn’t invest in a wheeled bag? I return to my tent and gather my gear for the first day of riding–map, water, helmet, rain gear, repair kit, determination… I have never ridden in a large group. Ho w do I keep from running into someone else or keep someone else from running into me? What if I fall and break something? What if I fall and embarrass myself? What if I can’t make it to the next stop? The sag wagon is there to help us out, but what if I am the only loser that needs it? I search for the internal pull that has transported me to this starting line and find a slim thread remaining to tug me there.         

There is a formal start off ceremony on this first day, but I decide to leave early to avoid riding in the sizeable crowd and give myself extra time to make the day’s miles. I am not a ‘group’ person, and I am not here to celebrate and have fun. My tent mate starts with me and I am grateful to have company as we learn to discern the hot pink trail markers, painted on the road, that will direct us for the next seven days. We find our way through five miles of city streets to the off-road trail. My tent mate stays with me and I feel certain I am hindering her speedier cleat clad feet from moving ahead. My eyes relentlessly scan the trail for hidden roots and rocks waiting to steal my stability. Fear of the gravity devil’s fingers threatening to topple me, turn me into a timid rider, erupting into a terrified one on downhill slopes or uneven terrain. An erratic cadence and clumsy shifting broadcast my rookie status as a distance rider. My pale knuckles seize the handlebars, relaxing only when the pedals came to a halt and my feet touch solid ground.  

We reach the first rest stop 17 miles from the start. Water, snacks and rest rooms await our arrival. Only a few of us are here, but the number increases rapidly as those from the initial pack arrive. I fall back on my practiced non-committal smiling as a primary way to interact. There are some friendly brief exchanges with other riders, but most seem to be traveling in familiar groups. I overhear stories of past trips similar to this one. Apparently this type of thing is a vacation destination. There is an older couple on a tandem bike, others on reclining bikes, a bike with a third wheel and extra seat for a young child, families with children on their own bikes and large adult tricycles. I had not imagined so many possibilities for participation.   

So far-even with 500 riders-there has not been a crowd on the trail. This will be true throughout most of the trip, as I often find myself beyond eyesight of any other biker. I relax a bit in the ease of these periods of isolation, beyond judging eyes, alone but not lonely. I enjoy alone time, time to think without the need to carefully put words together to meet other’s expectations and needs. My ride share guy comes over to join my tent mate and I as he arrives close behind us. The two of them seem to have a lot in common and converse easily. I excuse myself and get back on the trail, knowing I will need all the time I can grab to get to today’s goal. They will either easily catch up or meet me there. 

The trail is peaceful as it passes by fields and farmland. Overhanging limbs provide a shield from the hot sun. Parts are paved and parts are covered with crushed limestone that seems to want to direct my tires without my consent. Some of the trail follows the towpath used to drive mules as they pulled barges filled with people and/or goods along the original Erie Canal – started in 1817 and completed in 1825. Piles of large jagged rocks, called rip-rap, line sections of the shore to preserve it from erosion. At times the path runs so close to the sharp drop off I feel as if the rocks are magnetically pulling me towards them. One startle -an animal running in front of me or a speed biker racing by unexpectedly could lead to an abrupt swing of the handlebars, and I picture myself broken and bleeding on the rocks. Not a pretty thought. I move closer to the middle of the path. Others will just have to go around me if I’m going too slow!